Thinking About Going Back To School: My First Lesson in the ELA Classroom

July 20, 2015

In this writer's workshop, students will examine and annotate coming of age poetry. Students will then use these mentor texts as models to brainstorm, draft, and revise their own coming of age poetry. This lesson would be ideal to start the year as it allows you to get to know your students and build community in your classroom as students share memories and their writing.
I used to begin each year with short stories and teach basic literary terms: plot, setting, mood, character, tone, voice, point of view, etc. The short stories were classics, ones that the students and I both enjoyed, such as “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes, and “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe. There was nothing wrong with what I was doing. It worked.

But then last summer, I attended the Philadelphia Writing Project, part of the National Writing Project. One of the key texts we read was Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christensen (which I highly recommend) and it go me to thinking, what am I teaching for? Am I teaching so that students will learn these literary terms? Will it matter ten or twenty years from now if they can define tone? Am I teaching so that students will know the classics? Will it matter ten or twenty years from now if students read all 26 pages of “The Most Dangerous Game?”

I decided that the answer to both was no. I was teaching so that students could develop into strong, confident readers and writers and be prepared for whatever might be ahead of them in life. And as a ninth grade teacher, I was teaching so that my students would be engaged, so they would want to and continue to come to school (research shows that ninth grade is a pivotal year for success in and graduation from high school and I primarily teach ninth grade).

In this writer's workshop, students will examine and annotate coming of age poetry. Students will then use these mentor texts as models to brainstorm, draft, and revise their own coming of age poetry. This lesson would be ideal to start the year as it allows you to get to know your students and build community in your classroom as students share memories and their writing. So last year I decided to begin the year with a writer’s workshop using coming of age poetry as mentor texts. In a writer’s workshop, students write on a topic of their choosing with heavy emphasis on the revision process. Coming of age is a relevant, high interest topic for 14 and 15 year olds, and poetry is a shorter, more accessible text. Struggling readers are not immediately turned off and its length lends itself to multiple readings, annotation, and close readings. I teach students who read three or four or sometimes five levels below their grade level so I don’t want them to shut down before I can begin to build their skills and confidence as readers.

The two poems I chose to use in this unit were "Hanging Fire" by Audre Lorde and "What For" by Garrett Longo. "Hanging Fire" is one of my all time favorite poems to use with ninth graders, especially African American girls, because the content is so relatable for them. "What For" is a very different perspective (six year old, Hawaiian narrator) but has great imagery. As students do a close reading of and annotate each poem, we discuss the poet's use of repetition, imagery, strong verbs, and specific nouns. As mentor texts, both of these poems include all of the elements we discussed and that I eventually asked students to include in their own writing.

In this writer's workshop, students will examine and annotate coming of age poetry. Students will then use these mentor texts as models to brainstorm, draft, and revise their own coming of age poetry. This lesson would be ideal to start the year as it allows you to get to know your students and build community in your classroom as students share memories and their writing.
After reading, the fun began! We brainstormed different age-related memories, first independently and then shared them whole class to spark students who might be struggling with ideas. Students selected their best ideas from their lists and began drafting their poems. I asked my students to complete their drafts for homework, but this year I will give them more time in class to work on it to ensure that all students have a draft to bring to the read-around the next day.

A read-around is just what it sounds like. Students sit in a circle and go around the circle reading their writing as other students give them feedback. Ideally every student will share what they have written, but last year I had many students who didn't because they were nervous or unprepared. You can allow students to select someone else to read their poem for them if that makes them more comfortable. You may need to model the type of feedback you would like students to give so that the comments are meaningful. Based on this feedback from peers, students then complete another draft of their poem. Often they hear interesting or effective things their peers have done in their poem and want to emulate some of those techniques. The read-around is just as much about being heard as it is about hearing others.

In this writer's workshop, students will examine and annotate coming of age poetry. Students will then use these mentor texts as models to brainstorm, draft, and revise their own coming of age poetry. This lesson would be ideal to start the year as it allows you to get to know your students and build community in your classroom as students share memories and their writing.
Finally, students complete a final draft of their poem. Students are graded based on their inclusion of the elements focused on in the mentor texts: repetition, imagery, strong verbs, and specific nouns. If students have all of these elements, they receive full credit and if they do not, they rework their poem until they do. If this sounds like I am going "too easy" on the students, remember what I'm teaching for. I'm teaching for my students to become strong, confident readers and writers and for engaging my students in learning. You can check out this lesson in full here.

I'd love to hear what you are thinking about starting the year with. Leave a comment and share what your first lesson will be and why.

For more Back to School ideas and resources:

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11 comments

  1. I haven't read those poems before! Time for me to check them out!

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  2. This looks amazing, Brynn! I think your students are in for a real treat on the first day!

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  3. Wish I could be there on day 1 - what a superb session it will be Brynn!

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  4. Sounds like a great lesson. I love the poem choices; thanks for including those links.

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  5. Love the National Writing Project! I always get amazing ideas when I do professional development with our local chapter. Clearly, you do too, because this sounds like an amazing way to start the school year. I am going to check those poems out. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Sounds awesome! This looks like an engaging way to begin the year.

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  7. I'm blown away! This is an amazing idea! I'm so glad that I stopped by. Filing this one away in my list of things to include in my lesson plans!

    Krisanna
    Simply Secondary

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  8. Thanks for sharing this in such detail! I love trying new interactive models like this. :)

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  9. Wow!! If I were teaching secondary again, I would totally follow suit! I love that you teach with a social justice lens!

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  10. Thanks Liana! I'm a part of the National Writing Project and social justice is a big part of their "teachings."

    P.S. You are a no-reply blogger. You should change that!

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  11. I love starting the year with poetry. I use the poem "Pretty Good". It sets the tone of high expectation in my class and leads into my goal setting activity.

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